Legalize marijuana: We're locking up Pennsylvanians for no reason at great cost

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In November the people of Washington state and Colorado voted to fully legalize marijuana. Other places, including California, have had de facto legalization for some time.

This week, I am introducing legislation which would have Pennsylvania join these states in ending this modern-day Prohibition. My bill would legalize the consumption of marijuana for adults over the age of 21 without regard to the purpose of that consumption. Here's why.

For the past 75 years, our marijuana policy has been foolish, costly and destructive, and it must end. We have been waging a "war on drugs" that includes treating the use of marijuana as a matter for the criminal justice system. We have spent billions of dollars investigating, prosecuting, incarcerating and monitoring millions of our fellow citizens who have hurt no one, damaged no property, breached no peace. Their only "crime" was smoking a plant which made them feel giddy.

People across our commonwealth have spent time in prison, lost time at work, been forced to hire lawyers and had their lives disrupted and sometimes destroyed because they used a product less dangerous than beer, less risky than children's cough syrup, less addictive than chocolate and whose societal harm comes from its prohibition rather than its use.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in 2006, an average year, 24,685 marijuana arrests were made in Pennsylvania at a cost of $325.36 million. Each year we not only spend a similar amount, we leave several hundred million dollars on the table in taxes that we do not collect because marijuana is illegal rather than regulated and taxed. Aside from the moral issues involved, we simply can no longer afford the financial costs of prohibition.

Further, prohibition has done what it did in the case of alcohol in the 1930s. It has created a dangerous black market with violent and bloody turf wars that kill many people in our country and elsewhere. The original Prohibition brought us the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. Modern prohibition has brought us gun battles in the streets between drug cartels. Murders associated with the sale of alcohol ended with Prohibition. The same will be true of marijuana, although I realize cartels often traffic in other drugs as well.

Under the terms of my legislation, marijuana would be regulated, treated in a way similar to how alcohol is treated. It would still be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana, behave badly while publicly intoxicated or to sell it to minors.

Further, like alcohol, legalization and regulation would make marijuana safer. Pennsylvanians no longer would have to buy it on the streets from criminals who may have laced their product with other dangerous substances. People buying legally can know exactly what they are getting and rely on its safety.

Marijuana was legal until the late 1930s. In fact, it was the most prescribed drug in the nation. At that time, it was targeted by those who had an economic interest in removing it from the market. Today, marijuana prohibition is supported by misconceptions and old wives' tales that do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

For example, Gov. Tom Corbett said he opposed my bill because he "believes" marijuana is a "gateway drug." But science has clearly established that this is untrue. Well over 90 percent of those who use marijuana never go on to use harder drugs, and the percentage of people who do use hard drugs and had previously used marijuana is no higher than the percentage who had previously tried only beer.

Unlike alcohol, you cannot overdose on marijuana. Unlike alcohol and tobacco, marijuana is not physically addictive. Studies have shown that people on marijuana are much less likely to behave violently or recklessly than people who are drunk. And while breathing a hot gas into your lungs certainly isn't good for you, marijuana smokers on average smoke far less often than tobacco smokers. There is no way that marijuana ever could come close to killing the 1,100 people each day that tobacco does.

Despite all of this, adults can drink and smoke tobacco freely. But if you smoke marijuana, you are a criminal and can go to jail.

This horrific policy must end. People around the nation are realizing that. It is a moral imperative that Pennsylvania wake up and legalize marijuana.

opinion_commentary

Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, represents District 17 in the Pennsylvania Senate (www.senatorleach.com).


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